What Matters Most: Epiphanies for the common good


This column originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of The Bulletin

On a recent trip to Washington D.C., I made a pilgrimage to the Lincoln Memorial where I re-read Lincoln’s second inaugural address: “With malice toward none, with charity for all . . . let us strive . . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Coming out of the most divided period of American history, when “we the people” had literally been at war with each other, Lincoln’s words resounded in my soul as I returned to campus. On my desk was a copy of a small book published by our Pinchpenny Press entitled Epiphany by 2016 graduate Armarlie Grier from Rockford, Illinois. In the opening lines, she writes: “I am a Blackfoot-Cherokee-Irish-Black-Native. I was born in the United States.” And then asks with a tinge of frustration, “So I’m an American right? Right?” Armarlie writes of having endured the pain of “trying to pass as whatever is being marketed as American,” since her personal experience so often suggested that she was not it. While narrating these autobiographical stories she notes: “I had an epiphany – that my experience is an American experience, but one that is little known.” Her story needed to be told. I’m glad she did.

This year in cities and on college campuses all across America – including here – students of color and other underrepresented students, along with their allies, have challenged the latest version of “whatever is being marketed as American” by huckstering politicians and their allies. The age-old divide-and-conquer rhetoric has exploited real and deep divisions in our world’s body-politic. By contrast, I am proud of student leaders and others on campus who have defied such logic by leading and joining our Difficult Discussions about Difference (3D events) to make sure that epiphanies of awareness about our differences become the rule, not the exception. I am proud of students for resisting anti-immigrant bias to raise money and health kits for Syrian refugees, and the other countless ways they embody “charity for all.”

Just blocks from the Lincoln Memorial, the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. etched in stone at his memorial remain prescient: “Make a career of humanity, commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a better person of yourself, a greater nation of your country and a finer world to live in.” To our newly minted 2016 graduates – indeed, to all of us – may these words for the common good be an everlasting epiphany.

– Dr. James E. Brenneman, President of Goshen College